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When Novels Perform History

Dramatizing the Past in Australian and Canadian Literature


Rebecca Waese

How do you bring history alive? This book explores the use of dramatic modes – such as melodrama, metatheatre, and immersion – to bring immediacy and a sense of living presence to works of literature rooted in history. Focusing on Australian and Canadian literature from the late 1980s to the present, the book features original research on novels by award-winning writers such as David Musgrave, Richard Flanagan, Daphne Marlatt, Peter Carey, Tomson Highway, Thomas Keneally, and Guy Vanderhaeghe. The analysis addresses how these writers use strategies from drama and theatre to engage with colonial and postcolonial histories in their novels and create resonant connections with readers. Some of the novels encourage readers to imagine themselves in historical roles through intimate dramatizations inside characters’ minds and bodies. Others use exaggerated theatrical frames to place readers at a critical distance from representations of history using Brechtian techniques of alienation. This book explores the use of dramatic modes to enliven and reimagine settler-invader history and bring colonial and postcolonial histories closer to the present.

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Chapter 3: Performing the Nation in Peter Carey’s Illywhacker


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Performing the Nation in Peter Carey’s Illywhacker

Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, winner of several prestigious literary honours,1 examines the performative aspects of national identities and cultural stereotypes in twentieth-century Australia through the theatrical first-person narration of travelling showman Herbert Badgery. The picaresque narrator engages readers in an imaginative historical account of Australia from 1919 to 2025, into a dystopic future. Written in 1985, when postcolonialism and postmodernism informed much literature in Australia and worldwide, Carey creates a performative novel that delivers an unusual historiography told by an untrustworthy but engaging narrator. Badgery portrays Australia as a nation searching for an identity beyond that of a colonial outpost of Britain or an exploited trade partner of the USA, while coming to terms with its exploitation of its own inhabitants and, more specifically, the indigenous people who live there. Illywhacker has inspired a range of critical analyses examining its postcolonial and postmodern approaches,2 magic realism and the picaresque.3 This chapter addresses the performative and ← 97 | 98 → theatrical showmanship of Carey and of Badgery, the titular illywhacker, a ‘professional trickster’ or ‘spieler’,4 who champions the underdog, exposes pretences and gets his corner of the world on the map as the novel asks readers to examine the false masks and provincial mindsets that Carey suggests limit some Australians in this portrait. Illywhacker explores the beginnings of trade relations between Australia and America in the twentieth century and the posturing that characters from...

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